Fiction by Yossi Faybish
part 1 - the end
Something, this time, was terribly wrong. Not the wrong of the previous phone calls when you kept complaining that your feet were hurting but everything else was perfect - blood pressure, and heart beat, and vitamin levels, and whatever else comes under age-tests category. And telling me that you would be visiting yet another specialist for yet another miracle treatment that would cost you yet another handful (a big handful, as I found out each time) of greens - greens, your code for money. No, this time you did not phone me, it was a social worker phoning me and mentioning the word amputation. And gangrene. And I started shivering uncontrollably, barely able to hold the phone in my hand. You never told me you had a sugar problem, father, I always thought that the diet drinks in your fridge were for you to keep in shape. I was blind, father.
I packed a few shirts, chose a random suitcase, bought a ticket and flew over right away. You were already at the geriatric ward surrounded by so much age. So ugly the age surrounding you and cocooning you inside the smothering care of careless wardens, and nutritionists, and nurses, and doctors. The beauty of age?... Ha, let the fairytale weavers dirty the soles of their shoes just once in a hospital’s geriatric ward. Where are the movie scenes of golden age and soft music and pinks? All I found were snores, and barks, and wails, and detergent stank camouflaging the real stank. Heartbreaking desolation of imposed age and imposed medication and imposed life. Plants, suffering plants - mindless to their surroundings except for the pain in their bones and the tubes dumping fodder down their stomachs, geese ready for the slaughter, for the foie-gras. Human shreds, force fed for the glory of misplaced medical grandeur and distressed relatives who follow the medical grandeur in their ignorance. And you, the only living flower in hell, seeing it all and understanding it all and knowing that all you wished was to die decently. Yes, so clear in your mind that I felt like screaming in echo, yet unknowledgeable enough to scream in approval or in denial or in pain. No, I don’t want pampers, I want to be seated on a toilet seat like a decent human, your eyes pleaded. But your mind was confused with medication and your mouth could not form the words. And your mental anguish so terrible... what are they doing to people your age, father? Man-made zombies, at the push of a pill releasing button. So easy to define them afterwards as demented, so much easier for the medical profession to justify its act of indecency, isn’t it, father?
I appeared. Like sunshine suddenly shining on you, the toothless smile, the happiness creases around your eyes, the finger pointing to the ear - get me my hearing aid, they think I am crazy, I am not, I don’t hear them. The bandaged foot, ready for the saw, ready for my approval, your knowledge that life was suddenly over and I was the assigned henchman. I signed, they said I had to. You understood. You refused to accept. You did not blame me, you just shut down. Where is it, my life? you asked me, before shutting down, before they cut it away from you. Not your leg, your life.
The operation was a success. Of course. Even before penicillin such operations were successful. It was not the cut in the flesh which worried me but the cut in your mind. There was no penicillin for this one. All they could do was tie your hands to prevent you from pulling away the tubes and letting yourself bleed to death, as you wished to. For how long can one force a living, iron willed mind to dwell in a decrepit body? For as long as you can bend the iron with Prozacs and their immense family. And once you miss one, there is no stopping the iron. No more pampers for me you declared in your absolute silence, absolute hunger, absolute thirst. And when they missed the one, the iron took over and you wished yourself dead. And you died.
part 2 - the end
They brought you over from the fridge. You wouldn’t want someone else buried in the grave, would you? they asked. Of course I didn’t want, so I had no choice. I had to look at you once more - who knows, maybe with some luck you would open eyes again? Yes, I was lucky, it was you. No, I wasn’t lucky, you did not open eyes again.
I touched you, why be afraid of death, it is life one should be afraid of. Your flesh was not as hard as I expected, though cold, of course. Some of the rosy color still there, your mouth still in its determined last grimace, your eyes closed. No eyeglasses, no hearing aid, nobody seemed to think that you might need it there. They were probably right though I couldn’t be sure, not before I joined you. But they did not allow me to bring you anything of the kind, rules, regulations, religion. I sat on a chair next to you and tried to tell you things I never did before. Why do living people find it so easy to share with their dead counterparts rather than with their living ones? It was one of the questions I asked you but got no answer. Not even a miraculous, invisible hand scratching signs on the wall.
All ok? asked the burial rabbi, sticking his head in the room he deserted earlier on. I guessed he was worried at the dead having woken up and himself losing his fee. All okay, I reassured him, pointing to my wallet, then pointing to the body still lying on the stone table, covered in its white sheet and waiting for the last rites. Then I kissed the cold forehead and covered it for the last that I would see him, my father.
I didn’t expect it to be raining, it never rains this time of the year, assured me the rabbi, but he was for once wrong. It was raining cats and dogs and probably cows and camels too. Maybe this was one reason not many people showed up. Or maybe most had died before him and those still alive, family included, thought a camel might crush them down. I’ll never know, I do not intend to ask to find out. To each their piece of conscience and gratefulness - those he pulled out of life’s black holes, those he guided across bridges, those he saved. There were some strangers. There were some I knew. Thankfully there was the traditional minyian, the ten men necessary for the traditional ritual to take place. Not that I minded, but my father did. Or rather would. Or maybe did. Or... yes, a bit dizzy, sorry if my storyline gets a bit knotted up, after all it is not every day that you get born. Or that you burry the one responsible for it, either.
The ceremony was over and everybody scrambled away to their cars. I wanted to stay behind, alone. How could I cry with all those people around me? I needed my privacy, my crying space. Finally they gave up trying to persuade me to join one of the awaiting cars and left me alone with an umbrella. Well, I could cry with an umbrella as company, that did not bother me. They did, though, wait outside the cemetery to drag my squishing form in a car’s back seat and drive me home. No, thank you, I wish to be alone, and I mounted the flight of stairs to my father’s apartment, getting lost in the rubble he carefully accumulated all over the floor and finally finding a bed I could crumble on. The pillow got soaked within moments. Yes, with rain.
part 3 - the end
It was a big house, not huge but big. Adding up the walls to the floor, and then the windows and wardrobes and cabinets and junk - made it even bigger. I couldn’t cope with cleaning it up and putting some order to it all by myself, and all I had was one month. So I brought her over to help me. She, a stranger from some strangely-named strangely-spellable place, one of those coming over from nothingness to do a job and then leaving to the same nothingness after completing the job. A pure commercial arrangement. She arrived.
I could identify neither her age, nor even her gender - packed as she was in ready-to-work clothing, a scarf covering most of her head, her lines definitely Slavic, her hands... I gasped a moment, definitely not the rough cleaning-washing-dusting kind of hands. Her fingers so delicate... There was no need for words or explanations. She dived into the kitchen and started her job. I dived in whatever else was around, and that included as well bureaucratic arrangements with governmental entities, visits to my work place to deal with urgent matters, everybody very sorry but no one giving a damn. Exhaustion started taking over my body massively.
One of the days, about a week later, I returned home to find her sitting on a chair, a few photo albums next to her, and she was leafing through them so carefully that you might have thought the pages were made of glass.
“Your family?” she asked. She probably found them in one of the drawers she was emptying for cleaning, a mix of albums and loose pictures, some of them stained with my father’s unmistakable fingerprints - big, rough.
“Yes.” I sat down next to her, explaining some of the pictures, trying to remember names, places.
“Don’t worry, I will catch up with work later,” she assured me, without me having to ask for it. Yes, I was sure she was going to do it, she worked her way through the house like a slave, earning her money so honestly that probably I was the one in the dishonest spot by not paying her enough. I started telling her about my father, didn’t even pay attention that I started tearing until she handed me a handkerchief.
I smelled the smell of fresh soup around lunch time, next day.
“You don’t have to do it, it is not part of the job,” I told her, coming in from the balcony.
“You have to eat, don’t you? And don’t worry...” I stopped her, I knew what she was going to say, that she would catch up with work later. And the soup was delicious even though it carried a strange tinge to it. She refused to tell me what it was, old family secret she claimed and smiled for the first time since she started working in the house. It was also the first time I paid attention that she had grey-blue eyes, and a few wrinkles around them. She skipped my insistence on getting her secret recipe by telling me about her life. Just snippets of it, yet, as fascinating in its small joys and small sorrows as discovering a whole new world right there, in my living room. We worked much later that evening, after all we had to catch up with work. But I learned meanwhile that her real work was writing, and this job, now, was just a fill-in for making a living. Writing was her passion. That explained her fingers. On an impulse I gave her a notebook with a collection of my poetry trials, apologizing a thousand times for their being so awkward. “Not awkward at all,” she told me next morning, waking up a bit later than usual and getting to work on my father’s wardrobe right away. It felt strangely wonderful hearing it.
She folded first the shirts, and I packed them. Then the coats, blazers, and I packed them. Packing my father’s life away, the leftover’s of someone who will soon become a no one except in my heart. And after I die, a no one at all.
“Here, I found these too,” she said, handing me a few yellowed feminine garments. It did not wonder me at all that he kept some of my mother’s stuff mixed with his, it gave him certain comfort that he could touch her again this way, somehow. “And these.” She handed me a triple row of pearls, which I remembered from childhood and from family pictures. I touched them as reverently as if I was touching once more my mother’s face, then handed them back to her.
“You keep these, please.” Was there a glitter in her eyes as she did not refuse, and leaned over to kiss my cheek?
The second week was nearing its end. We were advancing nicely with the work in the various rooms, and took to the habit of eating lunch and later also dinner, together. There was a certain, not imposed intimacy there, as we were telling each other anecdotes from our lives and from time to time watched the TV news together. Even warriors need a break, I insisted, and she accepted on condition that she prepared the coffee. I accepted. I was surprised when I returned home late, on the second Friday after we started the cleaning, and did not find her in the kitchen. Probably out, shopping for food, I thought and went to the bathroom for an obvious need. She was there, naked, her hair wet and long, her hand moving through it with slow brushing movements, it was the first I ever saw her hair. And I hardly could see anything else. She did not scream, did not run to hide, just blushed to the color of sunset as I beat a fast retreat mumbling an apology which neither made sense nor was it honest. When she came out she found me in the kitchen preparing coffee for both of us. It was the first time she let her hair hang loose, wearing my father’s old bath-robe, tied tightly around her waist with some non-matching ribbon.
“Don’t apologize,” she beat me to the word, “it wouldn’t be honest, anyway,” and she laughed letting me off from that unpleasant tight spot right at the edge of the cliff. “I have a small request, if you don’t mind,” and she sipped her coffee watching me intently. As I obviously waited for her to go on, she laid her cup on the table, and continued. “I would like to see the sea,” she said. I expected anything, only not this specific request. “I’ve never seen the sea,” and she picked up her cup once more.
“Of course, you’ve never been to this country before,” I laughed, my stress relieved.
“No,” she said, “I’ve never seen the sea.” There was a plea in that grey-blue that could have drilled through a mountain. And it was only half an hour’s drive away.
We arrived there early next morning. A few joggers leaving imprints on the freshly washed sand, a few noisy gulls overhead, and a woman who seemed to have lost all inhibition - pulled off her shoes, pulled down her pantyhose and rushed into the low waves like it was the gateway to paradise. I sat down on a bench and watched her. As I was shivering with the morning chill she was chasing gulls up and down the deserted beach, chasing a few adventurous dogs who deserted their not less adventurous owners to play catch with her, she even tried to climb a lamp post to reach up to a chirping bird which seemed to have lost her way in the city and was crying her longing for a nest. It was like an image from a Dali painting, minus the squashing and the distorting but overflowing with warmth and color. I was, probably, close to what is commonly called - thunderstruck. Then she kneeled, crawling all over the soaked sand and started collecting shells and pieces of shells, carrying them in her folded skirt. So what if her nakedness was showing, she was... alive.
I must have dozed off. I woke up sensing some strange kind of wet chill on my cheek, and opened my eyes to find her fingers placing a shell there. Then she removed it and kissed the spot. Then she placed the shell on my mouth. Then she removed it and kissed me. There was no passion in the kiss, just happiness.
“I want to make love to you,” she said, watching me intently for any sign of surprise, disgust, fright... There was none such on my face, as I collected the shells from her skirt into my pockets. She kissed me once more on the lips. There was passion in the kiss. I rented a hotel room for one day. We made love.
She was about to leave. The work almost completed, the floors, walls, windows clean, the clothes, tools, kitchenware cleaned and collected, ready for whoever was going to inherit my father’s place and life. My heart heavy with a loss which was and a loss which was about to be. She wanted to visit his grave. “But there is nothing between you,” I tried to argue for arguing sake. We got there in a cab and she followed me to the marble stone. I hated that marble, the lock to so much life and love and loss. I approached it, touched it and put the fingers to my lips. “La revedere, tata,” goodbye, father - I said in the only language he would ever understand. She followed me and looked at me at length, before diverting her eyes to the stone and guessing which of the strange letters was the right one to touch. She touched it.
“Thank you,” she said, with apparently no reason, in a language he would never understand. Before she left the cemetery, the town, the country to go back to that strangely-named strangely-spellable sea-less nothingness they all go to after completing their job. Not before she left my life, she never left my life.
“Multumesc, tata,” I said, with apparently no reason, making sure he understood whatever it was I wanted to tell him. Thank you, father.
Yossi Faybish, born 1948 in Romania, and after a childhood filled with a cultural richness in stark contrast to the country's "rich" poverty, moved with the family through several countries to finally settle in Belgium. An engineer by profession, a mathematician by head and a writer py passion, Yossi was published in several anthologies with his poetry and short stories. He writes life, science fiction, romance and fantasy. Poetry is for him a superior type of math, like music. His writing is never "the run of the mill, always different, always a story waiting to be told" the way he talks about it. Yossi has also written a cartooned memoirs about his life in the working world, a science fiction novel, and his short stories count in the hundreds while his poems count in the thousands.